Wednesday, April 5, 2017
The current situation in Syria is shocking to people around the world. Dictator Bashar al-Assad has apparently attacked the Syrian people with sarin gas, resulting in at least 70 deaths, and many victims suffering horribly from the effects of the deadly chemical. This situation has had an effect on the Donald, too. He has called it an "affront to humanity", and now says that he is re-thinking his position on Assad. We'll see how much his position changes.
Until now, Trump didn't seem to have much of a problem with the Syrian dictator. This is in keeping with his consistent stance of favorable treatment toward Russia, which is the Assad regime's benefactor and protector. In fact, just days ago, Trump signaled a major change in policy toward Syria. He indicated that it would no longer be the US policy that Assad should leave office. Instead, Secretary of State Tillerson said that should be left up to the Syrian people. In Trump world, that is a euphemism for giving Assad free reign to continue to wage war on his own people. Assad has a long history of atrocities, and that was the main reason for Obama's policy.
Perhaps Obama could have done more to force Assad out, or at least to stop him from using chemical weapons. He had said that Assad's use of chemical weapons would be "crossing a red line". But he had campaigned on a promise to disentangle the US from military conflicts in the Middle East, and that was in keeping with the opinion of the American public. And intervening in Syria would have risked direct confrontation with the Russians. In 2013, Obama requested that congress authorize a Syrian intervention under the War Powers Act, and the Republican congress refused to act upon it. Obama then reached a deal with Russia, under the auspices of the UN, that called for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Russia was to have primary responsibility for overseeing the execution of this agreement, but they failed to follow through on it. Last year, Obama urged the UN to increase pressure on Russia to remove the weapons.
It is important to note that at the time, Trump also favored a non-interventionist stance on Syria. In fact, he was quite outspoken in his opposition to any intervention in Syria. That's why it was startling to hear him today placing blame for the current crisis squarely on Obama's failure to take action against Assad when he was in office. Yes, the same Assad that didn't seem so bad to the Donald just a few days ago, when he decided to drop the US policy calling for his removal. Assad may well have been emboldened by this signal from Trump. It is also worth noting that Trump saw no reason to place any blame on his BFF Vladimir Putin in this matter. As with every bad thing that has happened since Trump's inauguration, it's all Obama's fault.
So now, Trump claims Syria has "crossed a lot of lines". Suddenly, his view of Syria seems to have changed. It remains to be seen exactly what his new policy will be. Somehow, though, I doubt he will do anything that would be too upsetting to Putin, who wants very much not to lose his only Mediterranean naval base, made possible only by his benevolent relationship with Assad. Stay tuned.
But there may be something positive to come from all this. Amid this international crisis, there has been something of a shake-up in the White House, at the National Security Council. It seems Steve Bannon has been removed from the NSC. It was a shock to the entire foreign policy and defense establishment when Bannon assumed a key role in the NSC. He was a political advisor to the president with absolutely no relevant experience that would merit this unprecedented placement in the NSC. Together with Michael Flynn, they proceeded to remove the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from their seats in the principals committee of the NSC, relegating them to attendees by invitation only. It was Bannon's objective to eviscerate the NSC and turn it into a political arm of the White House. Bannon was at odds with McMaster, the National Security Advisor who replaced Flynn, and who now seems to be asserting his position. Along with the removal of Bannon, the DNI and the CJCS have been restored to the principals committee, and other changes advocated by McMaster have been made. This news has been received with great delight by people throughout the government, including both Republicans and democrats in congress.
It appears now that Bannon may be out of favor in the Trump administration. The White House denies this, insisting that Bannon remains a trusted advisor. But his absence at today's meeting with the King Abdullah of Jordan was conspicuous. I can only speculate that the NSC's inability to serve the president in a meaningful way during the Syria crisis has finally made Trump realize that he needs adult leadership in the NSC, and Bannon was in the way. Even if Bannon remains as an advisor to Trump, his removal from the NSC can only be a good thing. As I noted earlier, this may well be the best thing to happen since Trump became president.